Are British Actors Better Trained Than Their American Counterparts?

The very British Carey Mulligan played the very American Daisy Buchanan in this year's blockbuster adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby.' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The very British Carey Mulligan played the very American Daisy Buchanan in this year’s blockbuster adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby.’ (Photo: Warner Bros.)

At the recent red carpet premiere of the hit Superman reboot Man of Steel, Anglophenia’s Tom Brook asked the film’s British star Henry Cavill a pointed question: why are America’s iconic trio of superheroes all played by Brits? (Englishman Christian Bale is our incumbent Batman, while the Surrey-raised Andrew Garfield suited up for Spider-Man last year.)

Perhaps American leading men simply aren’t up to the task?

“There’s nothing wrong with American male actors, young man,” Cavill tut-tutted to Mr. Brook. “What the case is is that we as three actors just happened to fit into the respective director’s visions at the time.”

Is it merely a coincidence?

In a time when U.K. stars regularly assume convincing American drag on U.S. TV and Carey Mulligan and Benedict Cumberbatch frequently defeat their Yankee peers for the choicest of Hollywood roles, there is reason to look a bit more closely. Back in 2011, we spoke with British Battlestar Galactica star Jamie Bamber and veteran Hollywood casting director Marci Liroff for their perspectives on what many were calling the start of a new “British invasion,” this time of America’s big and small screens. But we also chatted with Edward Kemp, artistic director of Britain’s highly prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), for his inside knowledge of the classical training many British actors receive. Are U.K. actors simply better prepared for the rigors of screen acting than their American brethren?

Here’s my interview with Kemp, which took place in May 2011:

Anglo: Many U.S. casting directors believe that British actors are better trained than their American counterparts, use their bodies and voices more effectively, have more facility with accents, and are more skilled at comedy. How much do you agree with this?

Edward Kemp: I’ve fairly recently returned from my annual week of auditions in New York, where we are auditioning potential students to come to RADA. What’s been noticeable is that the overall standard has been improving over the last four years (as long as I’ve been at RADA) and this was the strongest yet.  The word from several auditionees is that they are finding the studio based system on which much U.S. training is based — where you study a particular approach to acting, e.g. Lee Strasburg, Stella Adler — increasingly unsatisfying. It purports to offer a single key that will unlock all doors, but more and more they seem to be finding that there are some locks that remain unopened.

Their feeling seems to be that the more heterogeneous, broader-based U.K. training offers a better foundation for acting in many genres and many media. I think this has coincided with improved training in the U.K. which through spending more time on acting for camera has made young U.K. actors more at ease on screen from very early in their careers.

I think the number of young British actors who can achieve a very plausible U.S. accent has also increased, which is in part through greater exposure and in part through a realization that there is real value in getting it right. In the days when you were only ever likely to use it for British ears, it didn’t matter so much.

How much might a RADA education give a student a leg up in a Hollywood career?

Edward Kemp: I hope that a RADA education will enable all of our students to make the best and most creative use of every acting opportunity they are presented with, be it in a big budget movie or a theater above a pub: it may be that that seriousness of intent gives them the edge. I am often struck by the ability of British trained actors to make the ludicrous lines in space movies “moving to warp factor nine in sector z 3337″ sound like they really know what they’re talking about: I suspect this may be an interesting side effect of fretting over the more obscure lines of Shakespeare and Restoration comedy.

I think likewise, the challenges of making classic comedy — anything from Congreve to Coward — feel true means that they may feel more at home in the tricky balance of craft and reality demanded by much comedy on both film and TV.

How has the recent success of British talent in America affected the career ambitions of RADA students? Are fewer alumni pursuing careers on the stage?

Edward Kemp: I think the fact that it’s now clearly possible to make a successful living as British actor in American TV is certainly of interest to our students. They want to do really good work and the fact is that much of the most exciting TV drama being made in the world is coming out of the U.S. If you can do great work, get paid really well and get the kind of profile that means you can get great roles on stage and film, why wouldn’t you want to do it?

The number of alumni pursuing careers on stage is almost entirely related to the amount of stage work being made. And with the [May 2011] cuts to Arts Council clients, we can confidently predict that there will be less stage work being made, and that what there is will probably employ fewer actors and pay them less. Almost every actor I know longs to work on stage, certainly the trained ones, and many of those in long-running series pine for the opportunity to get in front of a live audience again and in the medium that puts them in charge (TV, film and radio are all much more directors and producers’ media) — but equally they need to eat and live and support their families, and there are very few actors who could survive on the amount they get paid for most theater, unless they’re in a long-running West End show so they income is regular or can command the kinds of salaries that will support them during the periods of “resting.”

What sort of specific training would a student with U.S. TV ambitions receive at RADA? Accents, etc.?

Edward Kemp: We’re trying to give our students the widest possible basis for a career, so there isn’t anything we teach which is exclusively for the benefit of any one genre; the emphasis is more on what in education-speak are called “transferable skills.” So yes, they get a lot of work on accents — at RADA this is supported by weekly individual singing lessons, which develops both their ear and vocal flexibility (and I suppose might come in handy if they found themselves in Glee); they explore a wide range of different genres, but particularly contemporary naturalism (though as I’ve said above, it may be the more “classical” training which is assisting them in the current “breakthrough”); at RADA we tend to stage at least one American play a year (this year, three) which is in part because they are getting so good and bringing American material to life (and also because there is so much great 20th and 21st century American playwriting); we have doubled the amount of acting for camera training at RADA in recent years (courtesy in part to generous support from Warner Bros.) and all actors now make a short TV drama in their final year in addition to their stage shows; we have just recently introduced “green screen acting” as a one-off class.

How developed is the RADA alumni network in the States?

Edward Kemp: The RADA alumni network in the U.S. is currently more extensive than it is developed.  North Americans have been coming to RADA to train since at least the 1920s and as a result there are several hundred of them, from Rosemary Harris to Lisa Harrow and many others, not to mention those British alumni such as Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Ioan Gruffudd who are more or less residents of the U.S.  We are working hard with the Americas RADA Network to build connections, I now regularly host an event in New York when I’m in town auditioning, we recently ran our first American fundraising event (around John Gabriel Borkman starring Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw) and this summer we are going to be taking a party of students to Martha’s Vineyard to workshop new plays by U.S. playwrights with the Vineyard Arts Project.

What are the risks uniquely involved in a British actor pursuing a Hollywood career (especially the immigration issues)? What advice might you give that actor?

Edward Kemp: I’m afraid I’m not up to speed with the current U.S. immigration issues around actors — I’m more tied up with the mess the U.K. Borders Agency is making for our international students. There clearly has been some relaxation around actors working in TV and film and the protectionism of American Actors Equity seems to be less strong than in theater, where it still has clout.  I think the risks are primarily due to the length of contract. When you’re booked for one of these series, you will sign a contract that may commit you for many years, if the series gets renewed. That can be very lucrative, but also can mean that it takes you further and further away from other work. It can often mean that you have many more opportunities when you do get released — U.K. actors are becoming major stars and household names both in the U.S. and U.K. off the back of this work — but trying to fit that other work around the commitment to shoot 24 or more episodes of a series can be tricky. And with that can also some the dangers of getting stale, bored, frustrated. One RADA graduate described to me the experience of filming a U.S. TV series as a bit like a very glamorous version of working in Tesco’s — you turn up every day, see the same people, get assigned the day’s tasks, go home — day in, day out for several months. For some it can be very satisfying, for those who would like to be nightly tearing a passion to tatters it can be a bit strange.

The advice I would give would be the same that I would give to any actor considering any job. Try to understand as much as you can about the job you’re taking and know exactly for yourself why you are doing it. There’s nothing wrong in taking a job because you fancy paying off the mortgage, just know that’s why you’re doing it, not because it was going to give you great creative rewards: trying to persuade yourself doing a daytime soap is really like doing Ibsen is a recipe for frustration.

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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